William Shatner is still boldly going. Sure, it’s a cliché, but you know what they say about clichés… they’re the truth as proven by the passage of time. Shatner will turn 85 in March, but even for a guy who’s always juggling multiple projects, his dance card is jam-packed. Among the many goings-on: Star Trek 50th anniversary events that include convention appearances and an official Star Trek cruise in early 2017, a Christmas album (yes, you read that right), additional dates for his touring one-man show, Shatner’s World: We’re Just Living in It. And, notably, a new book: Leonard – My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man. The revealing memoir, which explores his relationship with Leonard Nimoy – Spock to his Kirk – will be released on February 16 by Thomas Dunne Books. In advance of the tome’s arrival in stores, Shatner spent nearly 45 minutes on the phone talking to StarTrek.com, answering questions both from us and from you, the fans. His replies were as detailed and reflective and personal as we’ve ever heard. We’ve broken the extensive, candid interview into two parts. Part one is below, and visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read the second half of our conversation.
I spoke to a lot of people, mostly talking from my own point of view, and then Leonard’s accomplishments were generally available to me either through knowledgeable people or just online. There was a lot of information out there.
What did you discover about your friendship with Leonard through writing the book?
In delving into him for the book, I realized that I did not do that while he was alive. And I sort of feel badly that I hadn’t looked into his pre-Star Trek accomplishments and post-Star Trek accomplishments. You know, we have our busy lives. You see somebody and you have dinner and you talk, but you haven’t really fully examined some aspect of that other person’s work. There are subjects you don’t necessarily go to in a conversation. It’s the details that I never got a hold of, that I wish I had while Leonard was alive.
You candidly write about how the two of you lost touch a few years back. How hard was that to put down on paper and share with the world?
It was very difficult. I played with the idea of not sharing it at all. But the story isn’t complete until I talk about the tragedy of our losing touch.
There’s also an anecdote about Leonard being angry at you for the way you handled matters when a TV Guide photographer came on the set of The Original Series to take pictures of him. You take the risk there of being honest and not coming off in a great light, but the reader learns a lot about your relationship with Leonard through that story. Take us through relating the details of that incident…
Well, there was a photographer coming into makeup, and that’s the most vulnerable moment actors have, when you’re without makeup. You’re there, it’s early morning and suddenly this guy is taking pictures of me. He’s snapping pictures, and the frame is containing me, I either imagined or I knew. So, I objected to being photographed. It wasn’t about Leonard being photographed, it was about me being photographed. I don’t know… it was one of those incidents that I’d totally forgotten about, but I was reminded of it by the fact that Leonard had talked about it. I keep thinking, "Oh yeah, I guess that happened." I don’t quite remember all the details, but there was a photographer doing stuff in the morning when everybody was doing their sleepy, 6:30 a.m. thing… and why is the photographer there? It seemed to be a reasonable question that got out of hand among emotional actors. I don’t know.
There’s a terrific exploration of the chemistry between you and Leonard as Kirk and Spock. You even quote Leonard as more or less saying that you as Kirk brought the energy to scenes, allowing him to be more reserved as Spock. How aware of that were you at the time, especially early on?
I wasn’t aware of it until much later, until after the show was over, until after everything we had done. He started to talk about that then, but he didn’t during the time we were working. I was just doing my thing. An actor is a source of energy. Even if that energy is deeply controlled and silent, there has to be a fire. There has to be a… vibration. That’s a better word. There has to be a vibration in the actor, and so many actors you see in a scene, there’s no impulse, no vibration. They just say the words. And, for me, that’s boring. But if somebody is impelled by some inner thought during a scene, that’s an action, that’s a feeling you can play off of, and it impels the other actor to bring their energy to it. So I guess I energize things as far as I thought they should go, and that helps keep a scene alive. Energy attracts energy, and so a scene starts to vibrate, especially if the other actor, or actors, is feeling it, too. And there will be a life in the scene that it might not have had without that energy. I look for that all the time in what I do as an actor. And when I direct, that’s what I look for in the actors. “Give me some energy. Have a thought here.” That’s what Leonard and I had together, and we just did it. We didn’t sit around and discuss it.
A lot of Trek fans out there know seemingly everything there is to know about you, about Leonard, and about you and Leonard. Yet, in the book you drop the following bombshell: “He was my friend. But according to the Global Reunion Project, we also were distantly related; supposedly I am Leonard’s wife Susan’s fifth cousin twice removed’s wife’s aunt’s husband’s uncle’s wife’s second grandnephew.” That floored us. When and how did you discover that factoid?
(Laughs). Well, that’s as a result of the modern-day ability to look into where your bloods have combined. So, it came up that in some, some distant way, we may be related. And I only heard about this after he passed. I’m telling you, it’s the result of all this looking at a computer. I think we’re all basically related, especially if you come from certain ethnic backgrounds. It narrows the field.
If Leonard is out there now on the Final Frontier, as they say, and reading your book, what do you hope he’d make of it?
I think he’d be embarrassed by the attention I brought to some of his excellences. Everything that I have done in connection with Leonard and Leonard’s family, it has always been done out of love. If I have made mistakes, if I have said or done something, it was inadvertent and I couldn’t have meant any harm because I have always loved Leonard and his family.
You will turn 85 years old in March. What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were just starting out?
I know, without any doubt, one thing, and that is I know nothing. I knew nothing when I started and now I really understand that I know nothing.
How hard a lesson is that to learn?
It becomes a revelation. It’s a slow revelation.
What were your aspirations early on? Did you just want to work or did you have your eye on stardom?
No, no. I just wanted to work. I wanted to make $100 a week, so that I could pay all my bills. What’s interesting is that I just wanted to work, but the definition of work changes as you become more successful or more well known. Work could have been a voiceover. Work could have been a walk-on part. Then your idea of work begins to evolve or change or grow, and work becomes something else. The definition of work changes as you go along.
You have talked about how you consider yourself to be an innately shy man, that you can stand in front of thousands of people at a convention or at a performance, but you’re uncomfortable if you’re surrounded even by a small number of people. Even now, do you still consider yourself shy?
You say “really” like you don’t believe me.
We don’t not believe you. We’re just... surprised.
Well, what is shyness?
Uncomfortable around people. Not wanting to give too much of yourself…
Sounds like me.
Recoiling from attention...
There you go!
Back when you were a kid, who in pop culture were you a fan of?
Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier.
Did you ever write them a fan letter or meet them over the years?
No, I never wrote them fan letters. And I never met them. I was in the proximity of Laurence Olivier. We had some mutual friends, eventually, from Stratford. But I didn’t meet him. And I live about a mile away from where Brando lived. I often thought I should ring his bell, but I never did. And then he died.
You've acted, written, directed, sung, emceed, hosted, been a pitchman and on and on. Is that wanderlust, curiosity, you trying to experience it all, or a bit of everything?
As a result of this celebrity that I’ve garnered, I have opportunities that aren’t given to most people. And I try to take advantage of those opportunities. (Just a few weeks ago), a record company called me and asked if I would do a Christmas album. I immediately had a concept in mind. I said, “This is what I’d like to do." They said, “Great.” And now I’m going to do a Christmas album. That’s an opportunity given to very few people. So now I have the ability to go out and try and create, and have these people pay me to put together a group of wonderful, talented people to help me with this Christmas album, because I really do have a concept. My ambition with this Christmas album would be to make it a perennial, that every Christmas you play this album in its entirety because it’s so delightful and so reminiscent of milk and cookies and ginger bread, and of the magic of Christmas and Santa Claus coming to visit and the snow and brittle air and breath being seen vaporized. So there’s a feeling of Christmas that I’d love to attain, to capture, with this album and, if I’m able to make this album a perennial, I would have succeeded in realizing this vision, this wish I have for it. And I’m going to do it. So we’ll see how close I can come.
A Christmas album by a nice Jewish guy from Canada?
(Laughs). But the Christmas feeling is similar to, but not the same, as a Hanukah feeling.